category: Reviews » Film reviews

Apr 2008

Southland Tales

I’ve just finished watching Southland Tales, the second feature film from writer / director Richard Kelly. His first, Donnie Darko, is one of my favourite films from the past ten years and — despite Kelly’s protestations that it’s basically a straight piece of science-fiction — I see Donnie Darko as one of cinema’s better portrayals of schizophrenia.

Southland Tales

Southland Tales, on the other hand, is indeed — fairly unambiguously — a science-fiction flick, albeit one which is a damn sight more psychedelic than most. Thematically, it draws heavily on Kathryn Bigelow and James Cameron’s millennial thriller, Strange Days, as well as the little known, and rather under-rated, Wild Palms (a TV mini-series from the early 90s that still inhabits my dreams to this day, and which has forever coloured the 60s rock classic, House of The Rising Sun… a song that’s never been the same for me since soundtracking Brad Dourif’s death in Wild Palms). While structurally, Southland Tales is an ensemble piece that owes a great deal to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (released, incidentally, the same year as Wild Palms).

The first thing to say about Southland Tales is that it’s a mess. The second thing to say is that it’s a glorious mess. A beautiful, fascinating, utterly trippy mess. Unlike Donnie Darko, which combined a wonderful visual style with some compelling and engaging characters, Southland Tales is all about the style. Which is not to suggest that it’s a case of style over substance. The substance of the film — the ideas — make for a fascinating couple of hours, but there’s no emotional engagement with the characters (though, of course, it’s difficult for me to engage with Sarah Michelle Gellar as anyone other than Buffy… one of my all-time screen heroines).

And that isn’t a complaint about the acting per se; there’s just no emotional depth to the characters they are portraying. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson does as good a job as any actor could have with his character(s). As indeed do all of the others, though it’s only Seann William Scott and — oddly enough — Justin Timberlake who are called upon to provide any kind of emotional content; which they do competently enough.

The film opens in contemporary America. We see home-movie footage of an Independence Day celebration in Texas culminating in a shot of a mushroom cloud on the horizon. It then jumps forward a handful of years. We learn that terrorists detonated two nuclear bombs in Texas that day. As a result, the entire Middle East is a war-zone and the United States has descended into near chaos; with a brutal, repressive totalitarian government barely managing to stave off outright revolution. Police sniper towers dot the city (the film is set entirely in Los Angeles) and people are gunned down with impunity if there’s even a suspicion that they might be engaged in criminal activity. We also discover that the war in the Middle East has all but dried up the supply of oil from the region and America is close to collapse.

Now, if you ask me, that there is the guts of a great film and one which Richard Kelly — based on the talent shown in Donnie Darko — could have turned into a masterpiece. But to that is added yet another thick layer of ideas… in the desperate search for an alternative energy source, America has turned to a revolutionary new technology which exploits “quantum entanglement” in the ocean currents to produce limitless electricity which can be transmitted wirelessly to any location in America. This technology, however, is having unpredictable environmental effects.

So Southland Tales tries to address both The War Against Terror and a kind of accelerated Climate Change scenario. But that’s not enough. There’s yet another strand to the plot involving a strange new drug; Fluid Karma; which comes in several flavours providing a range of different mystical experiences. And on top of that, there’s rifts in space-time, time-travel paradoxes, messianic metaphors and a meta-narrative (involving one of the characters writing a screenplay that begins to mirror the plot of the film itself).

As I say; it’s a mess. But it’s a spectacular mess. Southland Tales is as far from the mundane mainstream as you’re likely to get and I salute Kelly for that much at least. It is — as mentioned previously — a very psychedelic film in places. Had it been released in the early 90s during my heavy-duty acid days, it would have utterly delighted me. Like Wild Palms, it would — I warrant — still linger in my dreams. With a clear head, however, it’s a rather unsatisfactory film overall. It never quite descends into sheer silliness, but it comes far too close for comfort and the Repo Man-esque allusions close to the end merely serve to damage Southland Tales by comparison. Whereas Alex Cox’s classic took a single concept and created a mythology with it, Kelly’s film takes a dozen concepts — each perfectly fine on its own — and fails to adequately explore any of them.

Overall though, Southland Tales is definitely worth a watch if you’re at all interested in non-mainstream cinema. It’s funny in places, always lovely to look at, and occasionally very very good indeed. The use of music — as with Donnie Darko — is quite wonderful. A track by The Killers (which I don’t actually think is a great song) becomes a bizarre hallucinogenic trip experienced by Justin Timberlake’s wounded and psychotic war veteran, while a line from Jane’s Addiction’s Three Days is turned into a kind of prophetic, mystical mantra.

Whatever you do, don’t watch this film expecting anything close to the quality of Donnie Darko. But don’t miss it either. As a piece of odd psychedelia it’s up there with The Monkee’s Head. As a feature film, it’s a complete mess.

10 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Feb 2008

The Host

A few nights ago I watched the Korean monster movie, The Host. Written and directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a fantastic name), it’s very possibly the finest film of the genre*. Actually, now that I think about it, Jaws may well stake a firmer claim for that title… but being the second-best monster movie to Jaws is hardly a disgrace.

The Host

And the Jaws comparison is an apt one. Like Spielberg’s classic, The Host is actually about how a small group of people deal with this catastrophic presence that enters their lives (in this case a broken family… two adult brothers and sister, their father, and the young daughter of one of the brothers), as opposed to being about the catastrophic presence itself. The acting is quite amazing and as the tragedy unfolds, engulfing this fragile family, I found myself being genuinely moved by their plight. I’m not sure even Jaws drew that level of emotional involvement from me.

One major difference, however, between the two is the lack of a “Big Reveal”. There’s no “We’re gonna need a bigger boat” scene halfway through the film. Instead we see the monster in its entirety bounding along the riverbank, gobbling up fleeing people, within the first five minutes. I was surprised by this, as I was with a lot of the film. Certainly the manner of the monster’s death is telegraphed early. Even before we see the thing, in fact, within the first few minutes of the film, the perceptive viewer will be left in no doubt as to a crucial factor in the beast’s eventual demise.

But aside from this, there’s little about The Host that most viewers will find predictable. Central characters who are guaranteed to survive the inevitable Hollywood remake, find themselves casually killed off with very little warning. And to say that the ultimate outcome would not feature in a big-budget American movie is an understatement. Nonetheless, the low-key, tragic ending fits perfectly on a film that is far, far more thoughtful than any monster movie has a right to be.

The dialogue is mostly in Korean, though the occasional American character makes an appearance and is presumably subtitled in Korean for the home audience. In fact, there’s a surprisingly strong anti-American theme throughout the film. The film opens with an American scientist ordering his Korean assistant to dump toxic chemicals into Seoul’s Han River (with obvious results). Later on we see a news report stating that the United States has lost confidence in Korea’s ability to contain the crisis and is planning to dump “Agent Yellow”, a powerful chemical, onto Seoul. As we follow the family’s attempt to track down their missing grand-daughter (snatched by the monster at the beginning of the film), it’s against the backdrop of a city bordering on open revolt against the authorities.

It’s worth pointing out that there is indeed one heroic American character. But even his sacrifice is cynically manipulated by the authorities in order to further their own inexplicable agenda.

In fact, it is this perspective that makes The Host such compelling viewing. For once, we aren’t seeing the monster hunt through the eyes of the military, or some heroic monster-expert. Instead we get a citizen’s view of the complete mess being made of the situation by the authorities, while an ordinary family attempt to overcome not merely the nightmarish creature from the river, but also the utter incompetence of those in power.

One scene in particular springs to mind; Gang-Du, the central character, has been placed in quarantine having been splattered with the monster’s blood. He desperately tries to convince the police that his daughter is still alive. But he’s not a very sharp guy and has difficulty expressing himself clearly. Throughout the scene, he is separated from those he’s trying to convince by a thick sheet of semi-transparent plastic. Later, as he pleads with one of the scientists, he again finds himself separated (this time by the contamination suits worn by the officials), and shouts in frustration; “Why won’t anyone listen to me? My words are words too!” Rarely have I seen social alienation portrayed so well. And this is in a monster movie!

Watching the film, I was reminded more than once of the Japanese auteur, Takeshi Kitano. And that’s not a lazy “well both directors are from somewhere over there” comparison. Kitano is my favourite film director, bar none, and there are scenes in The Host (such as the one where Gang-Du and his father are running alongside one another by the river, Nam-il’s encounter with the homeless guy, and the wonderful final battle) which I found very reminiscent of Kitano’s work.

That’s not to suggest that The Host is a work of towering genius like Dolls or Hana-bi, merely that it transcends a rather one-dimensional genre and succeeds in being a genuinely excellent movie. Overall, this is a film I’d recommend very highly indeed. On the most basic level, it’s a damn fine monster flick. But there’s far more to it than that. Check it out.

UPDATE 22:45 I’ve just noticed that the review-quote on the English version of the film poster is “On a par with Jaws”. Pretty good call.

* It’s worth noting that I don’t consider either Alien or An American Werewolf in London “monster movies” in the strict sense. They fall very clearly into the ‘horror’ category for me. The Host, on the other hand, is not a horror film. It’s creepy, and there’s tension alright, but it’s not a scary film. Imagine if Godzilla had been really really good (instead of the steaming pile of shit that it actually was). Well, if you can imagine that, then you have something along the lines of The Host.

15 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Jan 2008

I’m Not There

Over the past few years I’ve begun to notice more and more Dylan infiltrating my musical world. Unlike many music geeks, I’ve never had a “Dylan phase”. Nonetheless, I’ve always appreciated and respected him as a great artist. His music may not have grabbed hold of me, but it grabbed hold of a lot of people whose taste I respected. And although for many years I owned no Dylan records, it wasn’t for quite the same reason that I owned nothing by Rod Stewart or Elton John.

I'm Not There

Unsurprisingly then, as the years wore on, I found myself acquiring the occasional Bob Dylan album, while my collection remained mercifully free of Stewart and John.

So despite never having that Dylan phase, I’ve finally got to the point where I’d call myself a fan. In fact, there’s a recording of Tangled Up In Blue on The Bootleg Series that’s become one of my favourite songs by any artist. In a certain mood, it can send a shiver down my spine and make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. When music has such a deep and direct emotional… even biological… impact, then you know you’re listening to something special.

I was intrigued then, when I started to hear about I’m Not There, the recent and highly acclaimed cinematic biography of Dylan. But the more I heard, the more sceptical I became. As a fan of Dylan’s music who knows almost nothing whatsoever about the man (or even, strangely enough, the myth of the man), I was actually quite interested in the idea of learning a bit about his life and the events that shaped his music. As quickly became clear however, I’m Not There was unlikely to be the film to satisfy that desire.

A biopic?

I think it’s important to point this out. I’m Not There is not a biopic. Or rather, it may be a biopic but you’d already have to have read a biography or seen another biopic in order to work that out. It would be difficult to say with any certainty that I now know more about Bob Dylan’s life than I did before. And the little I did know can be condensed into a single paragraph…

He started out as a traditional folk singer covering the songs of Woody Guthrie (a depression-era folk singer about whom I know even less than a single paragraph). He then started to write his own lyrics and became a folk music legend. He introduced The Beatles to pot in the early sixties and hung out with them occasionally in London (I did have a “Beatles phase”) where he also spent some time with Allen Ginsberg. He picked up an electric guitar and got called “Judas” by the folk scene. Nonetheless he became increasingly successful, but like most people who become living legends was fairly troubled by the experience. He turned to religion, and got into Jesus in a very big way for a while. Latterly he has settled down to tour and make a bunch of albums that inevitably could never have the impact of the earlier ones that created the legend in the first place.

To be honest, I’d hesitate to add anything to that paragraph despite having watched a two and a quarter hour film about the man’s life. And I think that’s kind of weird.

But of course, it can be argued (and I have no doubt that Todd Haynes, the writer and director of I’m Not There, would do so) that the film fundamentally isn’t a traditional biography. It is quite clearly not attempting to tell the Bob Dylan story in a traditional, linear, literal sense and so it’s unfair to criticise it for failing to do so.

And here’s the thing; I accept that. I understand what Haynes was trying to do, and he has to a great extent succeeded. We’re deep into the review and this is the first time I’m saying this, but let it be said; I’m Not There is a masterpiece. It is one of the most beautiful, compelling and perfectly constructed films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s got a magical, hyperreal quality to it that reminded me a lot of David Byrne’s underrated True Stories in places and Woody Allen’s underrated Stardust Memories in others. It is a magnificent piece of cinema and I’d urge all of my readers to check it out, whether or not they are fans of Bob Dylan.

It’s a masterpiece. But it’s a flawed masterpiece. Because when I’m watching a truly great film, the last thing I want is to be dragged out of that immersion in another world towards the nagging questions of my own mind. And I just couldn’t prevent myself from wondering which events were close to being direct representations of scenes from Dylan’s life and which were metaphors. The film tells the story metaphorically, but clearly strays further from literal reality in some places than in others, and the part of me that was hoping to learn something new about Bob Dylan insisted on wondering which was which.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m well aware that’s not the right way to view such a poetic and dreamlike film; but I’d argue that for fans of Dylan’s music who know nothing about his life, it’s damn near unavoidable. Did he really say that in a Press Conference? Or are they the Dylanesque words of a screenwriter? Did he ever spend time travelling America in box-cars? Clearly he didn’t do it as an eleven year-old black kid, but are those scenes entirely a metaphor for his early fixation with Guthrie, or are they also illustrative of a real period in Dylan’s evolution?

And while Haynes might argue that the point is that the young Dylan’s heart and mind were living a hobo’s life… that it doesn’t matter precisely how literal or metaphorical the scenes are… in reality that’s simply not quite true. A young man travelling from town to town, earning his meals playing folk music, is having a fundamentally different set of experiences to a young man who — feeling trapped and suffocated by suburbia — escapes to the open road in dream and fantasy.

The Players

As well as the dreamlike / metaphorical style of the film, I’m Not There is also known for the creative casting. The different stages of Dylan’s life are portrayed by different actors. So Marcus Carl Franklin is an 11-year-old hobo called Woody Guthrie. Christian Bale is “Jack Rollins”, a legendary folk singer who retires from the public eye to become an evangelical preacher. Heath Ledger is a famous actor who plays Jack Rollins in a biopic and whose personal and family life is torn to shreds by fame and public adulation. Richard Gere is “Billy The Kid”; the older Dylan, a fugitive from his own legend. Ben Whishaw is “Arthur Rimbaud” who declaims to camera in scenes which may have had a significance I didn’t grasp (did Dylan really face persecution as a leftist in his early days? Or is that a metaphor for how he felt he was being viewed and treated by mainstream America?) And last but far from least, Cate Blanchett plays “Jude Quinn”, the legendary folk singer who picks up an electric guitar.

Paradoxically, Blanchett manages to be the second great flaw in I’m Not There despite turning in the best performance (one worthy of all the acclaim it has received). She is utterly hypnotic when she’s on the screen and overshadows five other fantastic actors. But if anything, she is too good. Partly the quality of the make-up, but mostly the quality of her acting, meant that I found myself — again and again — involuntarily thinking “I really can’t believe that’s Cate Blanchett! She’s just incredible!” And of course, few things are as likely to burst that bubble of cinematic immersion, than repeatedly being reminded of the actor in the role. Which is a shame. Superficially, perhaps if she hadn’t looked so much like Dylan, it would have been easier to accept her…? I don’t know. As it was, she was the best actor in the film, but she was also the one who most exposed the film as a film, rather than an unfolding dream.

Beyond The Flaws

A flawed masterpiece is still a masterpiece. And I’m Not There is the kind of film that only comes around every handful of years. It stands head and shoulders above everything else released last year (though I say that without having seen the new Coen Brothers movie yet) and if you’ve not seen it, then I urge you to. The flaws are certainly there, but despite having spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about them here, they never overshadow the film as a whole. This is a truly great piece of cinema and if you go in expecting “near perfection” as opposed to “absolute perfection”, you won’t be disappointed.

7 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Sep 2007

Two To Avoid. One To See.

Last night I sat through The Contract starring John Cusack and Morgan Freeman. Even if it’s a dull Sunday afternoon and it’s on TV for free. Even then, do not watch this film. Instead spend 90 minutes scrubbing your bathroom. You’ll get more out of it in the long term and, crucially, it’ll be a more enjoyable experience at the time.

Also in the “to avoid” pile. And what a steaming pile it is. Also in the “to avoid” pile is The Number 23. Of course it’s not like I didn’t know what I was getting into. Jim Carrey in a Joel Schumacher film? Let’s face it, it’ll struggle to be ground-breaking. In fact it doesn’t even put up a struggle.

Right at the other end of the scale, and thanks to a friend wanting to borrow the DVD from me, I got around to rewatching The Seven Samurai again a few weeks ago. And then again the following night. Seriously. It really is that good. If it’s one of those films you “keep meaning to see”, then might I suggest you use this reminder to actually get round to doing so. It’s recognised as one of the best films ever, because it is.

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Apr 2007

Some reviews

Hallo folks. Well, I’m finally back from my extended Easter break. A long-weekend got transformed into a ten day holiday thanks to West Cork’s unusually-Mediterranean weather. Technically I was cycling (on my new and excellent bike). But I feel a bit of a cheat making that claim as the time mostly consisted of sitting on cliff-tops or beaches and eating the occasional biscuit. In amidst all the lazing about in the sun though, I helped someone clean a patio (don’t ask). Right at the end, after all the heavy lifting, bending and scrubbing was done, I decided to give the stones one last leisurely sweep. It was just then that some hitherto uncomplaining muscle in my lower back decided to go “ping” (or whatever sound muscles make when they tear).

At the time it was fairly painful, but bearable. The next day though was spent sitting in a car on my way back to Dublin. A journey that gave my back plenty of time to seize up good and proper. It’s starting to sort itself out now, and movement without unreasonable agony is possible again. But lying motionless for over a week has given me plenty of time to reflect on the fact that I can spend a week cycling and clambering over rocks and climbing the occasional tree and it be nothing but physically pleasurable… but a few hours of repetitive labour will bugger up my back.

This should surprise nobody except the creationists.

Of course, lazing around on the couch blitzed on painkillers and muscle-relaxants is hardly the worst fate that can befall a person (though it annoys me that I was forced to resort to such medication… the dearth of quality sensimilia in this country is shameful). Especially a person with an extensive DVD collection. So, some quickie reviews…

Stalker. It’s possible that this late-70s Russian art-SF film would be utterly incomprehensible even without taking a bunch of strong painkillers. Right now though, I can’t say for sure. Hypnotic, dreamlike and very odd. I recommend it.

Six Feet Under (Season 1). Television is almost never this good. The writing is wonderful, the acting is flawless and the production values make most Hollywood films seem pale and one-dimensional. I must admit to being vaguely annoyed by the very final scene of the season, but aside from that I can’t think of a single thing wrong with this programme. An unflinching and visionary look at human relationships and emotion. A work of genius.

Stranger Than Fiction. I have very little time for Will Ferrell (his part in Zoolander was bearable only because the rest of the film was so funny) but given the hype surrounding this film (I can’t help but be interested when the name Charlie Kaufman is mentioned, even if only by comparison) I figured it was worth a shot. And it turns out that — just like Jim Carrey — Will Ferrell is capable of doing a half-decent job when cast against type… in this case as a dull, repressed, buttoned-down office worker. Definitely worth a look.

Casino Royale. A bearable action flick. The chase scene at the beginning is by far the best part. When it shows up on TV it’s worth tuning in to the first ten minutes or so. Sadly it’s all downhill after that. Even the much-discussed torture scene is sanitised, so that it forces you to wince rather than turn away from the screen (as in Reservoir Dogs or Syriana). If someone’s getting tortured on-screen and you’re only wincing, then the director hasn’t done their job very well.

The Ice Harvest. John Cusack is a very watchable actor. And he’s been in some excellent films. Unfortunately his ratio of good films to utter dross isn’t as good as it once was, and he’s getting close to being an indication that I don’t want to see a film rather than a reason to see it. This is a particularly silly thriller that telegraphs every single plot twist and has a dire cop-out ending. Avoid.

I also rewatched Takeshi Kitano’s Dolls (possibly my favourite film ever) which gets more beautiful and moving with every viewing. Kitano had a degree of international success with Zatoichi which — it seems — irritated him somewhat. In response he made what is apparently one of the weirdest and most impenetrable films of recent years… Takeshis’. I can’t wait to see it!


Lately my reading has become rather more focussed than is traditional for me. Regimented even. On my shelf since Christmas sits Pynchon’s massive and enticing Against The Day. It is, as yet, unopened. Well, that’s not strictly true… I couldn’t resist reading the first couple of pages… it starts well, introduced by a Thelonious Monk quote — “It’s always night, or we wouldn’t need light” — and opening aboard the hydrogen airship, Inconvenience. But I decided back at Christmas that I’d wait until summer to read it. For two reasons. One of them being that the best place and time to read great fiction is under some trees on a warm sunny day.

A bit less fluffy, the other reason is simply that although I’m looking forward to full-time study, it’s meant I’ve had to spend a wee while “revising”. See, before I made an abrupt about-turn and got sucked into engineering, my original degree — quite a while ago — was in philosophy. It included courses on ‘The Philosophy of Psychoanalysis’, ‘Theories of Rationality’ and the heavily-psychoanalytical ‘Philosophy and Gender’. Nonetheless, it was still primarily a philosophy course and in no way did it provide a formal grounding in psychoanalysis. And because psychoanalysis is a complex subject (in the sense that there are a multitude of competing theories) it can take a while to acquire a fairly thorough overview. There’s no single book I’ve found that does even a quarter-decent job, so it’s a case of reading several different collections, often with a phrase like “The Essential” in the title (as, for instance, in Princeton’s excellent The Essential Jung) and keeping those most invaluable tools by your side… The Penguin Dictionary of Psychology and The Penguin Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis. The bevelled edges are pretty cool too.

I’m also starting to get the impression that Lacan is just Sartre with Venn Diagrams. But I imagine you get into trouble with the psychoanalytic community for saying things like that.

Anyways, I’m recovered enough to sit at the PC for more than five minutes without fretting that my back is going to seize up again. There was a worrying few days when I convinced myself that I’d slipped a disc, which I’m told can sometimes require surgery. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I managed to cycle to the village and back today without any ill effect. So once I’ve caught up on my email, I’ll hopefully be blogging on a semi-regular basis again.

Mar 2007

Standing outdoors. Then: don't see 300

Having spent almost no time online this week, I kind of binged today. There was a moment this evening… I was fetching some juice from the fridge… when instead of reaching out to grasp the fridge door-handle, my hand moved semi-consciously as though to mouse-click a notional ‘open’ button on the fridge. The cognitive dissonance was unsettling to say the least. So I immediately went for a long walk outdoors.

I stood under a tree at the edge of a field and watched a small group of cows. They were, like myself, standing around doing very little. Unlike myself, they were very occasionally taking mouthfuls of vegetation and slowly chewing them. For my part, I ate a portion of heavily-vinegared chips from the village chip-shop. It turned out to be an excellent antidote to information-overload.

Sound of lazy cows
Taste of grass, and vinegar
Broader horizons

Later, myself and a cousin went to see 300. I feel compelled to say the following; please don’t waste your money. It’s an awful film! It has enough redeeming features — just about — to keep you sitting in the cinema once you’ve paid your money. Though having said that, I’d possibly have walked out if I’d been on my own. At the time I wasn’t to know that my cousin was thinking exactly the same thing.

Redeeming features… it is occasionally very pleasing to the eye. But so is MTV, and I don’t want to pay a tenner to watch two solid hours of that. Hmmmm… OK, redeeming feature then.

Because beyond that, it’s a bunch of unlikeable and interchangeable half-naked body-builders shouting “We’re Fucking Hard, We Are!” Occasionally the King of Sparta gives a speech to his men in a style that veers oddly between Genghis Khan and the President of America as played by Harrison Ford.

With some judicious editing, 300 would make a fantastic six minute video for a Rammstein track.

UPDATE: Via Ken MacLeod, check out this review of 300.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Poetry, Reviews » Film reviews

Mar 2006

A History of Violence

Incidentally, unless stated upfront, I’ll never reveal anything about a film that can’t be gleaned from the trailer and advance publicity. There may be occasions where I want to discuss some vital element of the plot. In those cases, I’ll always provide a clear spoiler warning. This review does not contain any spoilers…

A History of Violence

I’ve been impressed by every David Cronenberg film I’ve seen to date. Because I’m intensely irritated by Jeremy Irons, I’ve never bothered watching Dead Ringers (it would be wasted on me), but aside from that I’ve seen almost everything Cronenberg’s done since Shivers and have yet to be disappointed. A History of Violence is no different.

A History of Violence

I would say this about it though… whereas in the past I’d argue that you could either love or hate a Cronenberg film – there’d never be any middle ground – now I suspect that’s changed. I could imagine people being ambivalent about A History of Violence. Which is not to level criticism. I’m anything but ambivalent about the film. But it does lack something of the viscerality that typifies Cronenberg’s previous films.

That said, the relatively small amount, given the film’s title, of on-screen violence is nonetheless extremely realistic and graphic. Also typically of Cronenberg, the two sex scenes are long enough and intimate enough to merit an ’18’ certificate in these liberal times. And his handling of those sex scenes is truly masterful, highlighting the radical changes occurring within the film’s central relationship.

The film’s plot is deceptively simple. We are introduced to two sadistic child-murdering hoodlums. Then we are introduced to Tom Stall, close to being a stereotype out of America’s mythical Golden Era. He’s an honest, upstanding family man. He owns and runs Stall’s diner on the highstreet of a one-diner town somewhere in the midwest. We meet his wife and family… she’s beautiful and devoted and very much in love with her husband. Their son is in highschool and is having trouble with bullies, but he’s essentially a good kid. Tom’s daughter is much younger… a pretty blonde girl about the same age as the child we saw murdered in the first scene.

The hoodlums roll up at Stall’s diner and try to rob the place. Tom Stall (played far far better than I expected by Viggo Mortensen) tries to placate them… does all he possibly can to prevent violence… but when it becomes inevitable, he reacts explosively and leaves them both dead. The local community hail him as a hero – and indeed there’s not really any other way to interpret what happened… the fact that it was so cut-and-dried a situation makes what transpires next all the more intriguing.

As mentioned earlier; pretty much all of this can be gleaned from the film trailer (with perhaps the exception of just how nasty the men he kills are). As can the arrival of a very sinister Ed Harris looking for Tom Stall, who he believes he’s recognised from the media frenzy surrounding the diner incident.

What follows is an intricate deconstruction of how violence changes everything in a person’s life. The film is also a study (and it’s here that Mortensen’s performance is truly mesmerising) of the impossibility of ever completely escaping the past. Rarely have I seen inner-conflict so successfully portrayed, both by Mortensen himself and by Maria Bello who plays his wife.

As I said, this is probably not a film for the squeamish. It’s a long way from being a violent film, but the violence is portrayed – quite rightly – as both horrific and shocking, and one extreme image in particular will stick with me for a while to come I suspect. Despite this, I cannot recommend A History of Violence highly enough. Cronenberg has abandoned neither his philosophical curiosity nor his willingness to shock. He has merely blended both far more subtly than ever before into a film that can pass as a mainstream thriller if you don’t pay too much attention.

So when you tie all that up with a host of amazing performances, you’re left with a film that’s both philosophically compelling and highly entertaining. How often does that happen?

6 comments  |  Posted in: Reviews » Film reviews

Mar 2006

Down by Law

Yesterday evening I decided to rewatch a movie that I’d seen fairly recently. Jim Jarmusch’s Down by Law. I first saw it a couple of years after it came out – back in the late 80s. But I didn’t see it again until a month or so ago when I got hold of it on DVD and was reminded of just how good it is. Despite seeing it only a few weeks ago, it suited my mood perfectly last night, so I thought “What the hell” and dug it out once more.

Down by Law

And it was just as good again. Jarmusch captures perfectly the hazy dreamlike landscape of the American Deep South with some of the richest black and white cinematography ever to grace a screen. And the characters played to perfection by Tom Waits and John Lurie are right out of Tennessee Williams. The lost of Louisiana. And yet, into this dark and brooding world Jarmusch throws Roberto Benigni playing… well, playing “Roberto”.

I’ve been told that Benigni’s humour can be something of an acquired taste, and not necessarily appreciated by all (a fact that amazes me)… but if you like him, as do I, then his scenes in Down By Law are side-splitting. His enunciation of the phrase “not enough room to swing a cat” had tears rolling down my cheeks. And the “I scream. You scream. We all scream. For Ice cream.”-scene is an obvious and gloriously funny nod to the Marx Brothers.

That this effervescent Italian clown should work in a film shot with so much stillness is a tribute both to Jim Jarmusch’s skill as a film-maker and to Roberto Benigni’s genius as a comic. And hearing Tom Waits deliver the weather report as late-night DJ ‘Fat Baby Slims’ is an absolute joy.

I’ve yet to see Broken Flowers, Jim Jarmusch’s most recent film, but I can highly recommend Night on Earth, Ghost Dog and Dead Man. And if you’ve not seen it already, I urge you to check out Down by Law. It’s an exquisite film. Up to and including the fairytale ending.

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